Checking in with Alumna Jackie Burns, Star of ‘If/Then’

Jackie Burns ’02 (SFA) got her first big break as Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway (she says she’s still finding traces of that green makeup!). Last fall she was on Broadway again, as Menzel’s standby in “If/Then.” That gig turned into a star role in the touring production. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jackie Burns ’02 (SFA) got her first big break as Elphaba in 'Wicked' on Broadway. Last fall she was on Broadway again, as Menzel’s standby in 'If/Then.' That gig turned into a star role in the touring production. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Jackie Burns ’02 (SFA) got her first big break as Elphaba in ‘Wicked’ on Broadway (she says she’s still finding traces of that green makeup!). Last fall she was on Broadway again, as Menzel’s standby in ‘If/Then.’ That gig turned into a star role in the touring production.

UConn Magazine caught up with Burns mid-tour at the Smallpoint Café, a few blocks from the Providence (R.I.) Performing Arts Center.

Q. You started in this role on Broadway as Idina Menzel’s standby. Were there any dramatic step-ins?
A. The very first time I went on I hadn’t even rehearsed yet. After the first act I heard, ‘Jackie Burns to wigs.’ Literally my worst fear happened. I was petrified, but it’s like hitting a switch, you go into I’m-a-bad-ass mode. You fool yourself, and then it’s finished. And you’re like, ‘That happened. I did it!’

Q. You are the solo star of this show. What’s it like to see your name in lights?
A. Oh my God, the most amazing thing ever! In Florida, driving down the highway there was the billboard. I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s me!’ I stopped and took a picture to send my mom. And in Toronto I was on all the buses. It is pretty epic.

Q. In ‘If/Then’ an old friend from grad school is instrumental in your decision along one of the life paths. Have any UConn friends been as influential in your real life?
A. My best friend Rachel! For sure. We got randomly put together freshman year and lived together from then until we were 28 years old. Until I moved in with my husband! She’s one of the most important people in my life. When I first moved to the city I went to an audition, and it was like a cattle call. I had a panic attack, left, and gave up on auditions. Two years, later Rachel made me go to an audition for ‘Broadway Revue’ at Tokyo Disney Sea. I got it. That changed everything.

Jackie Burns '02 (SFA). (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Jackie Burns ’02 (SFA). (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Q. You have two minutes with UConn’s current batch of drama students. What’s your advice to them?

A. Always be a student. Never stop taking classes; there’s always something you can learn. Even Meryl Streep must have something she can learn! And enjoy this time at UConn. People say they can’t wait to graduate. I say, stay! Enjoy this time where your only responsibility is finding out who you are. I had a great time at UConn. Appreciate it. Enjoy it. That’s what I’d say.

Q. Do you still use what you learned at UConn?

A. I was kind of a jerk freshman year. I hated memorizing lines more than life itself. [Drama professor] Eric Hill told me how frustrating I was. He said, ‘You’re so naturally talented. Think about how much better you can be if you put some effort into it.’ He gave me a bit of a wake-up call. I got serious. I still hate memorizing lines, though.

Q. Most embarrassing UConn freshman moment?

A. I think it was the entire year. I have naturally really, really curly hair, but I had bangs that I straightened. Rachel saved me. She said, ‘You have to pick one.’ She was wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and I told her: you have to be a grown-up. So we saved each other.

Q. I read that your alternate career would have something to do with animals.

A. Yes! Totally. I think I would be a pet groomer. I have a dog, Tabitha, and I’m always giving her baths and cutting her hair. She’s a rescue, a full-on mutt. She looks like an old monkey. And she’s not nice.

Q. Does that make you like her more?

A. Yes! I’m always trying to win her over. My husband says John wants Jackie, Jackie wants Tabitha, and Tabitha wants no one.

Q. Do you have any rituals before you go on stage?

A. Tons. I sing the same three songs right before I go on. I have to gargle with apple cider vinegar. I chew gum the whole time, but you’ll never see it. I keep gum in one cheek and a pastille [lozenge] in the other. My dresser cuts them in half. So diva!

Q. The three songs?

A. I sing soprano to warm up: ‘Green Finch,’ which I did in ‘Sweeney Todd’ at UConn, the opener from ‘Wicked,’ and ‘What’s the Use of Wond’rin’ from ‘Carousel.’

Q. Share your highest, lowest, and weirdest Broadway moments.

A. The high was my Broadway debut with ‘Hair’ – opening night, my parents being in the audience, my dream come true. Low was in ‘Rock of Ages.’ The very first time I went on, I fell flat on my face. My foot came off my 4-inch heels. For the rest of the show, you’re the girl who fell.

And the weirdest was once in ‘Wicked’ when I got into the levitator, I put the broom down to fix my cape and the levitator went up. I did the whole flying song without the broom. The entire time I’m singing I’m thinking I’m gonna get fired, and I’m doing all these crazy arm gestures to compensate. And no one noticed! I guess my arms were fierce.

In 'If/Then,' Burns plays a woman whose life takes different paths in the form of two characters: Beth, above with best friend played by Anthony Rapp of 'Rent' fame, and Liz (top photo).
In ‘If/Then,’ Burns plays a woman whose life takes different paths in the form of two characters: Beth, above with best friend played by Anthony Rapp of ‘Rent’ fame, and Liz (top photo). Onstage, Rapp gives off that best-ever best friend vibe. Offstage, says Burns, ‘He’s the sweetest, sweetest, sweetest man. He’s just a great guy and a workaholic. We’re old school. You’re sick, you’re dying? So what? Show up!’ The two have a bet to see who can go the longest without missing a performance; neither has missed one yet. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Q. What does the cast do in its down time? Do you ever just break out in song like in ‘Carpool Karaoke’?

A. I love this cast so much. It really makes a difference because your cast is your family. I wasn’t too keen on going out on the road. But I’m having the best time. I hang out with Matthew [Hydzik, who plays Josh] – he’s good at finding the new best restaurant in each city.

Q. What’s the best one you’ve found here in Providence?

A. Viva Mexico right up the street has really good tacos. We don’t have cars so we don’t do the karaoke, but maybe we should get one.

Q. What are your favorite restaurants in or around Storrs?

A. Red Rock and Civic Pub and Huskies and Ted’s. I was a big Civic Pub girl. Oh and DP Dough Calzones!

Q. What else do you do when you’re home in Connecticut?

A. I love the Clinton Outlets, so I do a lot of my clothes shopping in Connecticut. And just getting to drink in nature – the green, the water, and not the concrete jungle!

Q. You grew up in Connecticut. You now live in New York City, but said you hated it when you first moved there. Where feels most like home to you now?

A. Most definitely New York! They say it takes 10 years to be a true New Yorker, and that’s how long it took me. I hated New York, but I love it now. I’m having a hard time right now, because everything closes at one in Providence. In New York, you can get anything you want anytime you want.

Q. What was your favorite UConn role?

A. Joanna in ‘Sweeney Todd’ and the shimmy girl in ‘Smoky Joe’s.’ Both were CRT [Connecticut Repertory Theatre]. They were the first two paying jobs I had the summer after graduating.